At Home with Page, Sweden’s Original Synthersby coldwarnightlife
To viewers of Nordic Noir detective stories, the south of Sweden is a place occupied by disillusioned and lonely policemen, living in houses filled with wooden furniture, surrounded by endless fields of yellow rapeseed. To listeners of Swedish alternative music, it is a region brimming with creative artists, carrying forward the spirit of early European synthesizer bands like Kraftwerk, The Human League and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark; a place where the flow of electricity from the country’s power-stations keeps analogue keyboards and drum machines humming. Now that a British audience has embraced Wallander on television, through the original Swedish films, surely the time has also come to discover that Skåne’s finest songwriters and musicians don’t just live in the collective shadow of Agnetha, Benny, Björn and Anni-Frid.
Take Page, the original Swedish synthpop act. Founded in the suburbs of Malmö in 1980, Page were inspired to take up keyboards by Silicon Teens, the alter-ego of Mute Records’ founder, Daniel Miller. The back-story is that, before he discovered Depeche Mode, Miller had dreamed of a teenaged pop group based entirely around the synthesizers that were starting to become more compact and affordable at the end of the 1970s. He set out his vision through a series of singles and an album of rock standards re-conceived using analogue synths, which were attributed to a fictitious quartet of youthful musicians. When these records reached Sweden, Miller’s idea was turned into reality by 18-year old skateboarder Eddie Bengtsson, who was inspired to sell his drum set and buy two Korg synthesizers: one for himself and one for 15-year old Marina Schiptjenko, a classically-trained pianist who had fallen in love with electronic music when she saw Gary Numan playing on Swedish television. Together, Bengtsson and Schiptjenko created a new template for electronic pop, and Page became the house band for a growing audience of dedicated syntare (synthers).
Page’s first recording was the single for which they are best known within Sweden. Dansande man (Dancing Man) was written by Bengtsson and Anders Eliasson, who had joined the band shortly after it was founded. Released on the band’s own label in 1983, the record featured a distinctive hook, which was impressed with the feeling of Slavic folk music. Up-tempo and catchy, Dansande Man caught the attention of the Swedish media as a home-grown version of the synthpop wave then being led by Depeche Mode and Yazoo. Sung entirely in Swedish and released in a limited edition with quaintly hand-painted artwork, the record didn’t reach a wide public outside of Scandinavia, initially, but it has become a synthpop classic for the Minimal Wave generation. If you can find a copy for sale, it won’t be cheap: rare Page records are held onto tightly by collectors.
The departure of Eliasson for other projects reduced Page to the original duo of Bengtsson and Schiptjenko. Page continued as a live act, frequently appearing on-stage at the Stadt Hamburg venue in Malmö, which was the regional ground-zero for synth music and culture. Because the club lacked a liquor licence, teens were able to attend Page shows, which meant that the growing and youthful base of Swedish synthpop fans had a band to call their own. Even if Page would find commercial success at the level of Depeche Mode or the Pet Shop Boys elusive, within Sweden they shared much of the same audience – and are as highly regarded by many.
After Dansande man, the band released three singles on the Accelerating Blue Fish label. These were collected and updated for their first album, the eponymous Page, together with new tracks and a previously unreleased demo. Put out by Energy Rekords in 1991, Page represents a decade’s work, showing off the rapid and skilful development of the band’s songwriting. Although Eliasson’s legacy is also present, through Dansande man and the delightful Hus av glas (House of Glass), the album is really a showcase for Bengtsson’s pop sensibility. With strong tracks like Mia och Tom (Mia and Tom) and En dag på zoo (A Day at the Zoo), Page were firmly established in the premier league of Scandinavian synthpop. However, by the time the album came out, a credible songbook was no guarantee of commercial success. Without radio support or video play on MTV, Page wasn’t going to be able to compete with U2 and Genesis in the charts. For the band’s syntare fan-base, however, the release of a full album, collecting their favourite songs, was a major event.
Critics greeted the album warmly. Backlash magazine gave it a 4/5 rating, noting:
The style of music is easily danceable synth pop which has its roots in the beginning of the 80s. It’s hard to find any comparators, because Page’s music is its own. Moreover, Eddie Bengtsson sings in Swedish, which is not very common among the Swedish synth bands. He doesn’t just sing well; he also writes great lyrics.
Writing in Zero Magazine, Alexander Elofsson later recalled seeing the release celebrated on home turf:
Stadt Hamburg was totally packed on the evening of the show, and the atmosphere was boiling when Page stood behind their synths and gave one of the most highly-acclaimed concerts in Stadt Hamburg’s history. […] Page were kings of the Skåne synth scene.
They might have been electronic royalty, but Page didn’t rest on their laurels. It took another three years to put the follow-up album together, but Hallå! (Hey!) was a step change from Page in both the quality and consistency of production. With songs like Fredag för dig (Friday for You) and Nr:12 (Number 12), the band showed that it could keep ahead of the pack stylistically, while maintaining its integrity.
The lead track on the album, Bilmusik (Car Music), was released as a CD-single, and it quickly found a groove with Swedish radio. The single paired the album recording with a dub version, as well as a new dance track called Acid Skate. The latter married the bubbling basslines of acid house to samples from a documentary on skateboarding, which had enjoyed a revival in the 1990s. Bengtsson’s love for boarding is no secret: when he lifts his arms during concerts, he reveals a tattoo showing the evolution of man from ape into a free-style skater. However, he is less committed to making what in America is now known as “electronic dance music,” seeing it as “too easy” and too far removed from the pop aesthetic that interests him. Acid Skate therefore remains a lonely example of 1990s dance music’s influence on Bengtsson’s output.
That’s not to say that the dancefloor wasn’t in Page’s sights. The next proper album, Glad (Happy), followed quickly (by Page standards) in 1995. The opening, electrifying chords of Står i din väg (Stand in Your Way) signalled that, despite the title, the band wasn’t standing still – and neither would the feet of its listeners. Songs like Tiden går (Time Flies) and Jag väntar (I’m Waiting) were dazzling pop tracks, flecked with glam and space disco influences. A close listening to Jag väntar reveals phrasing that owes a debt to the Sex Pistols, put through a set of Korg and Yamaha filters. There just wasn’t (and, arguably, still isn’t) another band making pop music that is so sophisticated in its stylings.
A creative triumph but commercial disappointment, Glad marked a fork in the road for Page. Schiptjenko left to join the philosopher (and future Swedish Idol judge) Alexander Bard in his new band, Vacuum, while Bengtsson’s attention also turned to other projects.
Vacuum was born for radio play, and the group achieved rapid success. Their first single, I Breathe, was released at the end of 1996 and reached number 2 in the Swedish charts within weeks. The album that followed climbed into the Top 20, with Europe-wide airplay and tour dates, including several former Soviet republics. For Schiptjenko, a modest “syntare från Malmö” (“synther from Malmö”) whose relatives emigrated from Ukraine to Sweden after the Second World War, the experience must have been other-worldly. Bard was playing by different rules than the synthpop fans that she had grown up with musically: Schiptjenko describes his style of writing as collaborative but with “hyper-commercial” ambitions.
When Bard started a new band, Bodies Without Organs, in 2003, Schiptjenko was invited on-board. Backed by a major label from the beginning, BWO was wildly popular by Swedish and European standards, reaching pole position in the charts with the single, Temple of Love. The style was amped-up commercial pop, treading ground previously broken by other Scandinavian acts, like Aqua and Dr Alban, but with a knowing wink and a heavy dose of humour. The band achieved heady success, but its members kept their feet on the ground: while Bard had his day job as an academic, Schiptjenko was already established as a dealer of contemporary art through the gallery she owns in Stockholm with Ciléne Andréhn. At the peak of BWO’s popularity, when they narrowly missed out on representing Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest, she recalls overwhelmed fans coming into the gallery to seek her autograph (“It was cute!” says Schiptjenko).
Meanwhile, back in Skåne, Bengtsson was continuing to build on his reputation as a first-rate songwriter, juggling music with his day job as a teacher. While still in Page, he had started a side project, called Sista Mannen på Jorden (The Last Man on Earth), initially with collaborator Mats Wiberg. The name was taken from the Swedish translation of I Am Legend, the post-apocalyptic novel from Richard Matheson, and its songs reflected Bengtsson’s interest in science-fiction themes. Between 1998 and 2007, SMPJ released four albums of advanced pop music, with futuristic sounds teased from Bengtsson’s collection of analogue synthesizers. While the influences of Giorgio Moroder and Space can be happily detected in many songs, the music of SMPJ is strikingly original and often moving. Bengtsson is creatively fearless: he comfortably sings in a higher register, enhancing the emotional vulnerability expressed in his lyrics, which touch on themes of love and longing; and there aren’t many pop artists who would set the first song of their first release in waltz time with a theremin backing, as he did for En blå planet (A Blue Planet) on Först i rymden (First in Space).
Another channel for Bengtsson’s output was S.P.O.C.K, a science-fiction themed party band that had been put together in 1988 for a friend’s birthday celebration. The original plan had been only to write some songs to be enjoyed by friends, but the concept was hugely popular in the local scene. Live dates and foreign tours followed, with Alexander Hoffman on voal duty. Bengtsson’s involvement was originally limited to writing songs for the band, but by 1993 he had joined the group as “Captain Eddie B. Kirk” and took part in live shows. S.P.O.C.K’s touring schedule became more demanding, and in 1997 Bengtsson gave up his place on stage in order to spend time with his young family and focus on both Page and SMPJ.
In 2004, Bengtsson launched another project, This Fish Needs a Bike. Musically, it was consistent with the SMPJ line of albums, with the difference that the lyrics were in English for an international audience. One popular SMPJ song, Luft (Air), was rewritten, and songs like Putting My Suit On were unmistakably in the SMPJ style. After one album, From A to B, This Fish Needs a Bike ceased trading, and in 2007 Bengtsson returned to SMPJ for Tredje våningen (Third Floor). With a number of different balls in the air at any one time, how did he know whether a new song belonged to one project or another? Bengtsson explains:
It was always hard to know what I was doing – is this a Page song or a Sista Mannen song? Is this a S.P.O.C.K song? But I really tried, every time I was going to do a song – like, with Sista Mannen, I was trying to get into a certain mood for that. When I was doing a Page song, I was trying to get into a certain mood for that. Just to try to make some order for what was what. Sometimes it was hard, but I think, when I look back, that I managed it. If it was Sista Mannen, I tried to do a more spacey sound and the lyrics were about space, but also the style of the sound of the music was more dreamy and space-ish. For Page, it was more pop with a bit of punk and rock influence. And with S.P.O.C.K, there were more Euro and more Star Trek influences.
There is a reasonable case for comparing Bengtsson to Vince Clarke, who had launched Depeche Mode, made two albums with Yazoo and attempted a number of projects, before settling into a long-term relationship with Erasure. Like Clarke, Bengtsson has an instinctive ear for a pop song, as well as the technical skills to draw sounds from analogue circuits with emotional qualities of their own. Their careers in music began at approximately the same time, and they have each spent more than thirty years writing danceable pop without compromising to chase the trends of the day. Both are in demand as remixers – indeed, both have produced mixes for Robert Marlow’s forthcoming remix album – and are known for working alone in their studios to shape electricity into distinctive and catchy rhythms and melodies. Further comparison is perhaps unfair to both artists, because they have followed their own trajectories, but Sweden has not produced another songwriter or musician who comes as close to the influential role played by Clarke in British electronic music.
This much was recognised when, in 2010, designer Johan Wejedel released Tiden går – En hylnning till Page (Time Flies – A Tribute to Page). To the surprise of a humble Bengtsson, a cross-section of Swedish electronic artists recorded enough covers of their favourite Page songs to fill two CDs. Contributors included Candide, PA Tronic, Vision Talk, Norator, New Modern Angels and Diskodiktator. Bengtsson had previously made his own covers for tribute albums, but those were versions of songs by Depeche Mode and OMD – bands whose influence on the synthpop scene was universally acknowledged. With the tribute album, artists wanted to show their love and respect for Page’s music and the band’s place beside those internationally-known bands for the Swedish scene. Maybe Page wasn’t going to crash the file-sharing networks, but it continued to reach and touch music lovers and creators in disproportion to its performance in the charts.
The departure of Schiptjenko had not meant the end for Page. In 1996, Bengtsson made the first album without Schiptjenko, bringing in a drummer and another keyboard player to round out the band. Hur så? (How So? or How’s That?) came out only a year after Glad, but with a shift in its sonic structure that disoriented the public. While the integrity of his songs was firmly maintained, Bengtsson started to introduce fuzzy feedback sounds that replicated the tones of electric guitars. A follow-up, 1998’s Helt nära (So Close), moved even further along that path. Bengtsson explains that the listening public didn’t know what to make of the shift, even though mixing synths and guitars was by then a common pop practice:
I feel like, on those two albums without Marina, I was trying to do something different. I was trying to make more guitar-influenced music, but using only electronics. On the first of those albums, we used no guitars, but people thought it was guitar. So, for the album after that, I thought I might as well use guitars in the music, too. But, for that album, those who liked synthesizers said, “Too much guitar!” The other audience, which liked pop music, said, “Too much synthesizer!” We didn’t reach anyone, really, which was very, very sad because it was good music. It feels like everybody can mix guitars – look at Depeche Mode and other bands – but when we do it, it is very, very naughty, and that is a shame.
The situation was essentially the reverse of Neil Young’s experience with Trans. While the Canadian axe hero had bravely experimented with synthesizers, a large part of his existing fan base was implacably hostile, as they associated synths with sequenced disco music. On the other side, followers of Kraftwerk and Jarre didn’t know what to make of Young’s adoption of their favourite tools.
While there wasn’t a Dylanesque “Judas!” moment, Bengtsson had underestimated the wall separating the subcultures of syntare and hårdrockare (hard rockers). Though there was never any danger of Page turning into Rush or Cheap Trick, neither side was ready for Page to broaden its sonic palette so radically. In fact, both Hur så? and Helt nära contain exceptionally strong songs – like Trans, they are just waiting for their audience, and will in due course be recognised for their exceptional content.
The experience with those two albums convinced Bengtsson to focus on his other projects. Page went quiet, until a live performance at the Swedish Alternative Music Awards in 2000 reunited Bengtsson, Schiptjenko and Eliasson. Intended as a farewell wave to their fans, the show was recorded and issued as a limited-edition CD. With a final “Cha, cha, cha!” and the cheers of dedicated syntare filling their ears, Page had left the stage for good.
Or so the story would have ended, had Schiptjenko not looked at the calendar in 2010 and felt the pull of her roots. BWO was coming to an end. It had been fifteen years since she worked together with Bengtsson, and thirty since two teens in a suburb of Malmö plugged in a pair of Korgs and learned to make music using oscillators and keyboards. Wasn’t it time to make another album? Bengtsson happened to have one in him, and the result was a collection of grown-up pop, made without any pretences or pressure.
Nu (Now) was unashamedly electronic, and this time the album didn’t fall between two cultural stools. The synth scene paid attention again, and TV appearances and live dates followed. Radio, however, struggled to find a place for Nu between the latest Lady Gaga and Coldplay songs, despite the album climbing its way into the Top 40. Schiptjenko explains that this was not a new challenge:
We had a little peak in Sweden in the 90s with some radio hits, but it’s never been super-big. We had always been very popular on the alternative scene, and always among the fans, but we’ve never been a band played a lot on Swedish radio.
It doesn’t bother her a great deal:
I think the reason we are loved so much by the scene is that we were among the first, and we have stayed true to our roots, even if we have developed. We sing in Swedish, we have a certain sound. A big part of it is nostalgia. We created the scene, in a way. We were the first. The syntare and hårdrockare are really loyal to their bands. I also think that the fact that we are not played on Swedish radio is down to two things: it is a little bit prejudice – they don’t really listen – and I also think it is our age. I know for a fact, because I have been talking to those who decide what is going to be played, we are too old. We are not new. They want to find the young audience all the time.
In September 2013, Page are releasing a new album, called Hemma (At Home). If anything, the sound is more mature than Nu, with songs achieving yet another level of development from the days of Glad. Teasers that have been released on the group’s Facebook page reveal pronounced glam-rock stomping – a trend that began with Page’s cover of Slade’s Coz I Love You for The Seventies Revisited, a charity compilation that came out last year, and continued with the “Glamtronica” remix prepared by Bengtsson of a new Robert Marlow song. New promotional pictures show the duo posed next to a classic synthesizer in an early-20th century drawing room – a synthesis of the modern and the vintage. Bengtsson describes Hemma in these terms:
I think it is even more mature [than Nu], because I am maturing as an individual and a person, so the music is doing that, too – especially the lyrics. The music is actually the kind of electronic music I like. I can’t really say that I like electronic music, because electronic music is such a big genre, and my interest in electronic music is so very, very small. That small piece, that small bit, that’s like what I am doing. I am doing what I like, really, so there is no need for me to take a different direction. I am doing just exactly what I like. Electronic pop music stuff – that is what I like.
Hemma doesn’t completely shy away from the sounds of previous albums, but the guitars have been put back in their cases. Bengtsson again:
This album is purely electronic – like Nu, which was purely electronic, too. I tried to make it even more electronic and some of the songs are very electronic-sounding. Some of the songs are more guitar feeling, because I like that punk attitude and trying to make synthesizers sound like guitars – the arrangement of it. Instead of using Popcorn-ish sounds, I tried to do more grungy electronic sounds that sound like guitars. The way you play a guitar – I try to do that on synthesizers. I think it is very, very funny to do that, really, and nice. There are songs that sound like that, and songs that sound more like Giorgio Moroder – sequencer-oriented songs. All the songs seem to fit together in a way. They really make a whole body.
Will this be the time that Swedish radio finally grasps that they are sitting on a rich vein of home-grown pop music, just waiting for them to mine? Schiptjenko is stoic:
You never know – with this material, perhaps it will come through on Swedish radio, but I don’t think so. We do it for the love of the music and the scene, and it is so much fun, but it is not our main career.
A full tour is not planned, but a video is in the works and live dates are being lined up, starting with a performance at Gothenburg’s Electronic Summer festival. Schiptjenko will also be there with her “pet project”, an “electro-crooner” act called Julian & Marina, which is planning to release its own album shortly. Bengtsson is busy preparing another compilation of cover songs – this time, with a focus on punk rock done in an electronic style – together with artists from the south of Sweden. Page might not be the main career of its members, but only because their creative work is so broad and takes so many forms. It is a wonder that they are ever hemma at all!